Last year, as she defended her U.S. Open title, Osaka was beaten in the fourth round by Belinda Bencic. At the Australian Open in January, she played an error-filled match and was upset in the third round by Coco Gauff, then 15, an American whom Osaka had beaten in straightforward fashion at the 2019 U.S. Open.
Osaka was in evident disarray, but then came the five-month tour hiatus because of the pandemic. Osaka, the biracial daughter of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, became deeply involved in the social justice movement, attending a rally in Minneapolis and speaking out on social networks and elsewhere. She also worked intently on her game and her fitness in her new base in Los Angeles with new coach Wim Fissette, a Belgian who has helped Azarenka and many other leading players win big titles.
“The quarantine definitely gave me a chance to think about a lot of things, what I want to accomplish, what I want people to remember me by,” Osaka said. “I think it definitely helped me out.”
When she returned to the tour for a two-tournament doubleheader in New York, with the players in a controlled environment, she continued her activism. She initially declined to play her semifinal match in the Western & Southern Open the week before the U.S. Open, in solidarity with athletes in professional basketball, baseball and soccer who were protesting systemic racism and police violence.
Tour officials responded by canceling the entire day of play and Osaka went on to reach the final, withdrawing with a left hamstring injury before facing Azarenka.